FRANKFORT — A former Transportation Cabinet secretary suspected by the FBI of helping rig road construction bids was also advising Senate President David Williams, a Republican, about transportation issues during this year's legislative session.
But Williams said former Secretary Bill Nighbert, who was hired by Williams after the defeat of former Gov. Ernie Fletcher, ”wasn't in a position“ to help any contractors while working as a legislative aide.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Federal investigators are trying to determine whether Nighbert received money from a prominent road contractor in exchange for favors, according to an FBI agent's sworn statement.
Nighbert worked as Williams' aide between January and July 2008.
”Bill Nighbert never had a position in the Senate president's office where he could influence the passage of any legislation or where he could influence the inclusion or exclusion of anything in the budget,“ Williams said in an interview. ”I hired him because I felt like he could contribute on a policy level.“
Nighbert, who left Williams' office July 11, is now doing consulting work for Utility Management Group of Pikeville.
The FBI, according to an affidavit, is trying to determine whether that company is connected to road contractor Leonard Lawson and whether it was used to funnel payments from Lawson to Nighbert.
The sworn statement by FBI Special Agent Clay Mason was filed in U.S. District Court in London last week. It quotes former Transportation Cabinet engineer James Rummage, who accuses Nighbert of directing the release of confidential cost estimates of road projects to Lawson. Rummage claimed he accepted $20,000 from Lawson.
The affidavit, which was used to obtain search warrants for Utility Management Group and its accounting firm in Corbin, raises questions about payments the utilities firm made to Nighbert between January and March.
It cites bank information showing that Nighbert deposited a check for $36,050 on or about Jan. 7, 2008, in addition to receiving three $10,417 checks dated Jan. 9, 2008, Feb. 9, 2008 and March 11, 2008.
”These payments are believed to be in consideration of Nighbert's assistance to Lawson,“ the affidavit states.
Nighbert's attorney has denied the allegations and disputed the claim that Nighbert cashed checks from Utility Management Group while he was working for Williams.
The accounting firm, Marr, Miller & Myers CPA, produced an employment contract from December that called for Nighbert to ”be paid $125,000 per year“ for consulting work.
Howard Mann, Nighbert's attorney, told the Herald-Leader on Saturday that Nighbert did reach out to his local government contacts on behalf of Utility Management Group before joining Williams' office and resumed such work after leaving the legislature in July. It was then that he cashed the checks and also made a presentation on behalf of Utility Management Group to the Kentucky League of Cities, Mann said.
Williams said Nighbert's role was to help senators understand the transportation budget and the road contracting process.
Senate Democratic Leader Ed Worley of Richmond said Nighbert helped legislators of both parties prioritize projects in the draft of the six-year road plan and explained internal cabinet policies.
”I never saw anything during the session that Bill Nighbert did or suggested other than being a resource of information for the members,“ Worley said.
Williams, whose district includes Whitley County where Nighbert once served as mayor of Williamsburg, said he's skeptical of the accusations against his friend.
”I've never seen Bill Nighbert do anything or am aware of him doing anything illegal or unethical,“ he said.
According to the affidavit, the FBI interviewed Williams last month about Nighbert's ties to Utility Management Group's owner, Gregory May.
”Williams stated that recently at a political function in Frankfort, Nighbert introduced May to Williams using terms that May worked "with' or "for' Lawson,“ the sworn statement says.
Williams, however, said the affidavit didn't ”accurately portray any conversation that I had with him.“
He said he was introduced to May months ago during the legislative session and not at a political event.
Williams also confirmed that agents asked him about Senate Bill 7, a bill that Williams sponsored.
”I told them that Bill Nighbert had very little if any input on the bill and surely there wasn't anything in the bill that should be of interest to anyone unless they are a policy wonk,“ he said.
That piece of legislation, which didn't come up for a vote, was aimed at allowing infrastructure authorities to use tolls to pay for ”mega-projects,“ such as proposed Ohio River bridges in Louisville.